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Why Humane Prisons Are In Society’s Best Interest

a white prisoner with orange clothes in a prison cell..
The stakes of prison quality are quite high for the whole of society.

In this article, I set out not to offer specific criticisms or policy proposals, but to present a philosophical argument for why humane prisons are in society’s best interest, and why inhumane prisons, conversely, may have the opposite effect that many people presume.

Statistics On Prisoners In The US

There are tens of millions of people in prisons right now around the world. I happen to live in the US, which has the largest number of incarcerated people in the world, both on a total and per-capita basis. As you can see in the graph below, that number in July of 2021 stood at just over two million people (~420 per 100,000 people). In 2016, the average time spent in prison in the US, from initial admission until initial release, was 2.6 years, whereas the median figure was 1.3 years (prison statistics). In 2019, 1 in 7 inmates were serving life, or virtual life sentences (death row statistics). An estimated 5.1% of Americans will be incarcerated at some point in their lives (US incarceration statistics).

Prison population by country (July, 2021)

Some people have the idea that everyone in prison is a hardened, violent criminal with little to no chance of ever reforming themselves and leading a normal, law-abiding life. That perception may be true of a very small subset of the prison population, but it is simply not true of most people currently in prison, and most people who will be incarcerated at some point in their lives. The great majority of prisoners will one day reenter society. Per the statistics I cited above, the majority will do so in less time than it takes to get an associate’s degree.

People of perception understand that all human beings are connected–whether we like it or not–not just family members, friends, and acquaintances. People who have been victimized by random, senseless crime poignantly know this to be true. As do people who benefit from the sacrifices and innovations of people they never met. Right now, I am typing on a computer designed, manufactured, and delivered by people I never met. I’m wearing clothes and glasses that were likely processed and shipped from another country. You can think of 1,000 examples from your own life that illustrate the basic fact that people, near and far, are interconnected in complex ways. They always have been, and they especially are today due to technology and globalization.

Assessing The Utility Of Harsh Prisons

Prisons life throughout history is notorious for its brutality. Life is hard enough for free, law-abiding citizens, and societies, in general, either did not have the resources or interest to take good care of those who had committed crimes against the community. While this is less true in some developed countries today than it was in the past, prison is still typically the last place anyone would want to wake up–or fall asleep–in.

One of the functions of prisons is to serve as a deterrent for future crime. People confident they will suffer consequences for criminal behavior, it stands to reason, are less likely to violate the law. However, even the most humane prisons in the world entail isolation from friends, family, romantic partners, and loved ones. They entail loss of time, money, freedom, and dignity. Deterrence must always be weighed against the human loss of locking up large numbers of people, who will one day rejoin society, in a traumatic, de-humanizing environment.

Arguments In Favor Of Humane Prisons

There is an ethical argument to be made for making prisons more humane. Human beings have dignity–even people who have been found guilty of a crime. However, there is another argument, based purely on statistics, common sense, and self-interest, that gets talked about a lot less often. Just a small fraction of those who do time in prison spend their entire lives there. Everyone else is one day coming to a place near you and me, if they aren’t there already. Former inmates are our neighbors, our coworkers, people we share the roads with, people we see at the mall and grocery store. It is in our best interest that they do well in life–earn an honest living, have good health, mental and emotional, pursue their interests in a legal, ethical manner, and have quality relationships–just as it is in their best interest that we do the same.

It is in no one’s best interest to have a “throw-away” mentality, where we think and act like large numbers of people are no longer worthy of the chance to move forward in life, especially people who haven’t committed heinous crimes and have good potential to make something positive of their lives. A retributive “throw-away” mentality, in fact, seems to underpin much of the philosophical argument for prison brutality, rather than a genuine desire to establish credible deterrence. I believe deterrence is important, but the goal of deterrence should be human flourishing. A system built to deter that ends up hurting society in the long run is inadvisable.

There is a pain that builds up and a pain that breaks down. If more of the pain of incarceration belonged to the former category, then it stands to reason that we would all be better off in the long run.

For more, see the complete archive of articles on integrity.

An intellectually curious millennial passionate about seeing people make healthy, informed choices about the moral direction of their lives. When I’m not reading or writing, I enjoy hiking, web-making, learning foreign languages, and watching live sports. Alumnus of Georgetown University (B.S.) and The Ohio State University (M.A.).

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